Living with Chronic Stress

How we can cope when the going gets persistently rough.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

I can’t be the only one noticing an increase in the number of white hairs on my head, right? I find myself doing double-takes in the mirror making sure I am seeing things right. I know these silver foxes weren’t there a couple of months ago, and I’m also pretty certain I am not yet of the age to expect an ongoing new crop of these guys in my hair. 

Source: NathanCowley/Pexels

My gray hair actually makes perfect sense in light of what we are currently living through. Graying hair is a researched response to ongoing stress. With that said, my new white highlights make quite a bit of sense. Because whether or not I acknowledge it, I am under quite a bit of extra daily stress right now. And I think it’s safe to say, most likely you are too. 

As we are entering month number-I-lost-track-of-it in coronavirus life, the stress of living during a global pandemic has become a chronic phenomenon. As a psychologist, I have watched both my own and my clients’ ongoing and changing emotional responses to this unfolding pandemic. 

In a nutshell, my observations of our collective evolving emotional landscape look something like this: In the beginning, there was widespread acute anxiety. Many people were thrown right into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is our body’s response to perceived or real danger. Our body secretes stress hormones that activate a physical response so that we are prepared to deal with the threat and hopefully survive or get through it in the case of real danger. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much unfolding and changing. Important things were either shifting or stopping every single day: school closings and children home, working from home, furloughs, job loss—the rug was being pulled out from under us moment to moment in significant ways. Who knew what tomorrow would hold? There was tremendous fear and uncertainty as we scrambled to keep up with the daily fluctuations.

Then, after some time, whether or not we liked it, we settled into the closures and new social norms. Things settled down a bit and stopped changing as rapidly. We got into quasi-predictable quarantine life schedules, and thereon discussions of grief emerged. As the high and acute anxiety settled down somewhat, the grief of what had been lost began bubbling up.

Grief was found in big events such as jobs lost and financial stress, deaths, and whole lives being turned upside down. But grief was not only in the big, obvious losses. It was in the more nuanced and harder-to-articulate costs: the loss of life as we have always known it. In things that seem both small and weighty at the same time. Daily losses such as not being able to get coffee with a friend, swimming pools closed for the summer, and trips canceled.

Grief is still here in a very real and painful way as we have buckled our seats and taken a seat in preparation for this long ride. As the pandemic persists, it seems the once high and acute anxiety of the beginning stages of this pandemic has transformed into chronic anxiety and/or stress. 

Before we go further, I think it’s important to define the difference between acute stress and chronic stress:

Acute stress is our body’s reaction to a discreet stressor. For example, the stress you might feel before having to give a public talk or take an important test. In response to these stressors, our body releases stress hormones to help activate our body to deal with the event. Once the situation passes, the hormones cease being excreted, and we go back down to our deactivated baseline. 

Chronic stress is the release of stress hormones in response to ongoing and persistent stress. This type of stress response can lead to wear and tear on our bodies, as our bodies are not designed for the constant activation of this stress activation. It is depleting and exhausting to have stress hormones continually be released and it takes a toll on our bodies. Chronic stress has been linked to a host of physical and emotional difficulties (including graying hair, as mentioned above).

Right now, as we are several months into the pandemic, it is safe to say many people who at first were dealing with an acute stress situation are now contending with ongoing and severe chronic stress.

So, what are we to do? How can we acknowledge the continuing stress we are experiencing and move towards active coping to mitigate the potential toll it can take on our psyche and health? The following are eight ideas on how we can process and work through our chronic stress so that it doesn’t fester and take up residence somewhere in our body. 

1. Practice awareness of your breathing. Remember, when all else seems like it’s falling apart, we always have our breath to come home to. Noticing the gentle rise and fall of our natural breathing has a way of both filling us and comforting us. When we remind ourselves that we have our breath as a calming companion to turn to no matter what is going on around us, we find a source of power within us. 

2. Take deep breaths. This is different than the above-mentioned technique. Above is a meditative practice and not a breath manipulation. It is a technique to help us in getting out of our heads (where a lot of our stress stories tend to live) and into the present moment. Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is a manipulation of our natural breathing rhythm. This is taking intentional, longer, and fuller breaths all the way down to our abdomen. In doing this, we actually inhibit our body’s stress response. It cues our nervous system to relax, increasing the amount of oxygen we are taking in, and engaging our parasympathetic system to engage in a calming response. 

3. Exercise. This is one well-proven way to work through the buildup of ongoing stress. Engaging in cardiovascular exercise is shown to decrease stress and is associated with a host of mental and physical benefits. (Reminder: please never do anything that is not right for your body!)

4. Create perspective. Using the word “and” during this time can be a powerful practice. This word creates a dialectic. That is, it is possible to have multiple different and even conflicting realities co-occurring at the same time. This might sound something like: “Yes, this is so stressful and what else can we find here, in this present moment?” When we open up the picture and notice all that is unfolding in every single day and moment, we can acknowledge both the painful realities and recognize that there is more happening beyond the pain. 

5. Practice kindness. Performing acts of kindness has been shown to help with stress and increase feelings of happiness. During a time when it is natural to become entirely egocentric and unintentionally forget about others as you are dealing with your own stress, creating a mental shift and deliberately doing random and even untraced acts of kindness can do wonders for your own stress levels.

I want to share a personal story about kindness that really touched me: A couple of months ago, I found a chocolate bar in my mailbox with a letter that said “In tough times, a little chocolate can go a long way. Enjoy mommy! You’re so appreciated and loved! Love, your neighborhood secret pandemic chocolate supplier.” I still have not uncovered the identity of the beautiful human who left me this gift (and not for lack of trying!). It brightened up my pandemic experience, and I believe it must have lifted my anonymous chocolate supplier as well. But I think to myself, now there is someone who is doing a good job of actively coping with this crisis. 

The proof is in the pudding...errr...chocolate.
Source: LeahKatz

6. Adhere to a schedule. Try and create a rhythm for yourself (and your children if you have them living with you). It helps create a sense of predictability and control, which we all need, especially when it seems as if the world is unraveling around us.

7. Try and maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time every day (yes, even on weekends) is shown to benefit not only the quality of our sleep but also our mental well-being. What better time to instill this personal boundary when there are so many factors that are detracting mental health. 

8. Lead with self-compassion. I like to finish off these lists with a reminder to please practice them from a place of self-compassion. Remind yourself, no one functions optimally under conditions of chronic stress—including you. As the world has had to readjust its own expectations, please readjust the expectations you have of yourself.